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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 15:36 GMT
Liberia accused by Ivorian army
Checkpoint manned by civilians north of Abidjan
Ivory Coast has been divided in two by the fighting
Liberian Government troops have been accused of fighting alongside rebels in the Ivory Coast by the army.

For a third day running government-held positions have come under attack in the western town of Toulepleu close to the border with Liberia.

But Liberia has denied the Ivorian army's allegations.

The latest round of hostilities has serious implications for the peace talks which are coming to an end in Paris.

It also appears to confirm fears that the four-month-old conflict in the Ivory Coast will increasingly involve neighbouring countries in the region.

President Laurent Gbagbo is expected in the French capital late on Thursday afternoon, where he is due to hold talks with French President Jacques Chirac on Friday.

Liberian denial

In the fighting around Toulepleu, the army says at least 29 people died on Wednesday, including four soldiers.

"The participation of Liberian regular forces on the rebel side is... a certainty today," army spokesman Jules Yao Yao said on national television.

Reuters news agency says this is the first time the Liberian Government have been accused by the army of involvement.

So far, Liberian mercenaries had been blamed for supporting the rebels.

But Liberia denies any involvement in the fighting in Ivory Coast.

"There is no member of the Liberian regular army fighting on the side of Ivorian government troops or the rebels," Mohamed Kennet, the deputy head of protocol at the Liberian foreign ministry told the BBC's French service.

But he said that Liberian mercenaries were indeed fighting in Ivory Coast.

"All Liberians who are in Ivory Coast fighting on the side of the army or the rebels are there of their own accord, the Liberian Government has nothing to do with these people," he said.

Mr Kennet said that Liberian President Charles Taylor had officially been invited to the talks in Paris at the weekend and that he would be leading the Liberian delegation.

No deal yet

At the talks, leaders of the three main rebel groups have not yet reached a deal with the government.

But the BBC's Kate Devenport in Paris says that the talks are continuing in spite of the fighting in western Ivory Coast and that officials insist that a compromise can be reached on Thursday evening or Friday morning.

Despite the progress made on some issues in Paris, there has been no reported breakthrough on the rebel demand for early elections, which our correspondent says will kill or complete a peace deal.

President Laurent Gbagbo
President Gbagbo future is key to the talks

Rebel groups are believed to have proposed a compromise under which President Laurent Gbagbo would share power with a prime minister appointed from outside the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).

The rebels of the Popular Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) are now calling a demonstration against Mr Gbagbo in Paris on Saturday.

The MPCI called off a march scheduled to take place in Abidjan on Wednesday as a sign of good will.

'Gbagbo

West African presidents are due to take part in a second Paris conference over the weekend, although the leader of neighbouring Niger will not attend.

Talks in Paris
Paris decided to mediate after the failure of talks in Lome, Togo
Those close to the talks have told the BBC they have not discussed the demand for President Gbagbo to resign, and that it will be left to the presidents to sort out.

The secretary general of the United Nations and the head of the African Union will also be at the talks.

So will the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, whose regime Mr Gbagbo has accused of supporting the rebels.

A BBC correspondent at the Paris talks says they have found solutions to the questions of how to guarantee human rights, of who can be a citizen of Ivory Coast, who can stand for parliament and to some extent, who can own land.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Paul Welsh
"There are dangerous signs of the conflict spreading to other parts of the region"
  Austen Clarke, Deputy Liberian Defence Minister
"We have done everything to ensure that no military personnel enter into the Ivory Coast"

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See also:

22 Jan 03 | Africa
22 Jan 03 | Africa
08 Jan 03 | Africa
26 Sep 02 | Africa
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